Tag Archives: music

EMP Pop 2011: Where were the Queers?

2 Mar

By Tavia Nyong’o (reblogged from Hear is Queer).

The 10th Annual EMP Pop conference wrapped up over the weekend and, against my fears, hosting it at a university didn’t alter the ‘secret recipe sauce’ of journalists, academics, and musicians. Is it me or did we actually gain a new and welcome constituency of students? I can’t think of another conference I go to in which people from 18 to 60+ are in the audience and at the podium, carrying on overlapping conversations about a single topic with such enthusiastic passion.

Others, notably Ned Raggett, have offered copious documentation of specific papers. And a couple conference reviews are coming online, including one by my co-panelist Oliver Wang. I am going to offer my own scattered thoughts on presentations that struck a chord in me but before I do, I have to give a “wag of the finger” as Stephen Colbert likes to say to myself and the EMP community for a group that, upon reflection, was seriously underrepresented this year: queers.

Where were the queers?

I don’t mean the queer presenters: because there were plenty of us. My question is not about a head count but about where, in the discussion of popular music today, queer and transgender topics figure. Homosexuality is apparently a big enough topic that Congress has recently passed legislation on it, people have fought and died for it at home and abroad, artists are singing about it, and sex columnists are making sentimental YouTube videos about it. Is it important to us too when we gather annually to talk about music?

It’s possible — even likely — that I missed some great conversation on queer music happening in some other room. (I missed the Idol panel. Did Adam Lambert come up in relation to queer performance or music there?) But here’s my evidence based on what I do know. In the printed program (which would have attracted or kept away potential attendees), only a single paper title (mine) including the words lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual or queer. And that paper wasn’t even about a queer artist, exactly, although Gaga has, as my co-presenter Jack Halberstam pointed out in his talk, provocatively declined to disavow the transgender body imputed to her by some hostile fans. So while I don’t ordinarily do this kind of thing, I got out my rusty essentialist bean counter and looked for honest to goodness out musicians announced in paper titles (I started to go through abstracts too, but got tired. I’d never make it as a sociologist!).

The results (aside from my and Jack’s paper): Ann Powers’ creative use of the closet as a metaphor for thinking about genre; José Muñoz’s (sadly missed) paper on Darby Crash, and an interview with the man who signed The Smiths. I do have to throw in one attendee: Phranc showed up to the Work It! pre-conference (and asked, incidentally, are we going backwards or forwards? Is there any progress? Part of the trigger for this post.)

Gerrick Kennedy’s LA Times review of the pre-conference Work it! (organized through the prodigious energies of Karen Tongson) was appreciated. But it reproduced the annoying (to both feminists and queers) equation of “sexuality” and “female sexiness in some vicinity of the conventionally heteronormative.” (as the accompanying illustration of Beyoncé, Nicky Minaj and Lady Gaga suggested). Homosexuality or bisexuality was not mentioned in the article.

I embrace the selfishness of my criticism: I want more people to talk to at EMP about stuff I care about! It’s why all of us keep coming. But me aside, its obviously not the case that sexuality is irrelevant to the theme of money and capitalism, or that we did it a couple years back and now we’re through. We need to talk about it every year, especially if the mainstream media and scholarship doesn’t, or does so in simplistic ways.

So here, in the spirit of productive suggestions, are some ideas for next year:

  • Queer as Format: Logo TV runs “gay themed” video shows. Virgin America has a “Pride” channel featuring a range of artists from Ricky Martin to Joan Armatrading. What’s that about? Do you have to be gay to be featured on Logo? What if you aren’t gay? Have artists ever objected to their videos being shown on a gay channel? I’m thinking perhaps about glass closeted artists. What’s the history of gay labels (including the one that the original “I Was Born This Way” was on: the amazingly titled Gaiee Label!)
  • After the Closet. Speaking of Ricky Martin: where is the reflection on the momentous change (is it a momentous change?) in the last year or two where established and up and coming artists coming out to increasing indifference? K.D. Lang and Melissa Etheridge broke through in the 1990s. Was it harder for male artists to come out? What about trans (does Antony (& the Johnsons) count)? Is indifference a non-story, ie: sexuality doesn’t matter now? Or are new things happening with queerness precisely in the space where, for instance, straight female fans feel free to adore gay male singers and male frat boys groove on Kaki Kings’ guitar stylistics (HT Tina M on that last one).
  • Boys who do Girls. Speaking of new things happening, someone (ID anyone?) did bring up one EMP conversation the start that Darren Criss got a start performing Disney Princess songs on YouTube. Learning that completely opened my eyes to the canny sexual orientation striptease Glee has going on now, in which an openly straight actor plays an openly gay character who is given all these songs of female empowerment (Bills Bills Bills, Teenage Dream) to sing. Isn’t there an emo genealogy to trace here (paging Dr. Tongson)?
  • It Gets Worse: But maybe this is just a bigger question: where was Glee at this year’s EMP? Isn’t its commercial revivification of the TV musical and its impact on the pop charts and digital downloads worth checking out from a C.R.E.A.M. perspective? How do we think about the clash that the show constantly stages between musical theatre and contemporary pop/hip hop, both in its plot and in its contemporary impact (and its problematic whiteness)? Glee has used music to put forth the powerful idea (connected to neoliberalism in ways I could spell out) that life after the closet isn’t necessarily easier. As the adults on Glee intimate: life often gets worse, so endurance is not about normative futurity but about a kind of indefinite, lateral childhood (which is why the bratty Sue Sylvester remains the heart and soul of the show). The braggadacio of pop and the pathos of musical theatre meet in uncanny and uncomfortable ways on Glee that seem to have a lot to do with accommodating the growing social visibility of queers.
    I shouldn’t be giving away all my ideas here because really I want to write a book on Glee and the unmaking of the American Dream. But really, it would be swell to have more stellar minds than mind helping me think these things through. I’m jealous of how much platonic love record collectors, eminent rock critics, and the term “authenticity” gets.

Or, as Darren Criss, channeling Princess Ariel, sings: “wish I could be part of your world.”

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How Straight is Adam Lambert?

4 Jun
Adam Lambert (r) and galpal Drake leaving LA club recently

Adam Lambert (r) and galpal Drake leaving an LA club recently

By Tavia Nyong’o

A dirty little secret about American Idol finalist Adam Lambert: a lot of gay men dislike him too. The “shrill,” ” campy,” “theatrical,” “vegas act” epithets thrown at him as he advanced to finals on the recent Idol season were also hurled by many queers who found him equally grating. Now that the show is over, many would be thrilled to have him disappear back under the glitter-encrusted rock he crawled out of. When Andy Warhol prophesied that in the future everyone would be famous for 15 minutes, he failed to mention that 14 and a half of those might consist of pure backlash, and that seems to be where we’re at today (see: Susan Boyle). So where does that leave pop’s Great Glam Hope?

As a performer, some of Lambert’s most articulate defenders have been women, who also make up the majority of his fan base. Jo-Ann Wypijewski, in a pitch-perfect analysis in The Nation of this phenomena, writes

There is a reason people have always needed troubadours. Years ago a close girlfriend told me, “I want a man who makes me feel like music.” What a beautifully simple evocation of eros. The twist, for a straight girl, was that much of the music was imagined, written, performed or inspired by gay men. The double twist, today, is that gay politics, which once made eros a central concern, is focused on something closer to thanatos: hate crime, enhanced penalties, military service, marriage contracts.

The erotic thrill of Lambert’s Idol performances, for those who permitted themselves to be vibrated by them, solicit fandom on non-identitarian lines. So the debate over whether his female fans would be turned off if he came out seem to ignore the palpably obvious: possibility that his success with them could come not in spite of but because of his ambivalent persona.

Lambert’s blurring of the desire/identification boundary places him in a well recognized lineage of pop chameleons, but its also why he strikes a particular chord today. His on-stage ability to transform an otherwise awkward and ungainly body into a sleazy simulacra of heterosexuality is part of this appeal. Girls who like guyliner seem to do so because it distributes the pains and pleasures of self-fashioning more equitably between the sexes. And like a drag king, Lambert openly queered heterosexuality. Who but he could have snuck the Led Zeppelin line “I’m gonna give you every inch of my love” past the family values censors on live Idol? Or growl “I’m gonna be your backdoor man” on the extended studio recording? These hilarious phallic promises may be strap-on, but that’s precisely the point.

Much of the chatter by “tween” girls — or those impersonating them online —  centers on the possibility of Lambert being at least “bi.” Hope springs eternal, no doubt. But this particular fantasy reflects a certain truth of eros, that it is indeed always criss-crossing and undermining distinctions of sexuality and gender. What if, rather than taking  “bi” as code for “straight enough,” we read it as expressing a preference for bisexual guys over straight ones? If all the YouTube videos taken by girls of emo boys kissing are any indication, contemporary sexual identities, practices, and desires do line up much less neatly than often imagine.

Nevertheless, gay bloggers like Perez Hilton, Michael K, and Richard Lawson of Gawker have stayed more or less fixated on why, how, and whether Lambert will officially “come out.” Given that he has already shown up in online photos in drag, making out with guys, and, now, gadding about in public with his current beau, the question of his outness might seem, well, academic. But it is precisely the obviousness of the matter that drives so many crazy. By not discussing it directly, they believe, he makes sexuality a bigger deal than it would otherwise be. In refusing to be a positive role model for the gays — and thus skirting our thanatopic preoccupation-du-jour: gay marriage — he is being a negative role model, holding us back, both by acting outrageously flamboyant and by refusing to cop to it on Oprah or Ellen.

Maybe so. But Lambert, who is nothing if not a showbiz pro, may simply be timing his public “reveal” for maximum career impact. He has to get through a demoralizing summer of group touring under the Idol thumb. Perhaps this is his way of guaranteeing an August magazine cover … timed perhaps with an album release? If this seems cynical, it shouldn’t. Weddings, childbirths, and weight loss are all routinely commodified events in celebrity culture. Why shouldn’t gay celebs get to cash-in on their non-news as well?

And there seems to be another gambit going on, beyond his female fans and gay male naysayers. Unless I’m very much mistaken, Lambert is making a play for a straight male audience as well.

Don’t laugh. Lambert is, among many other things, a first-rate rock belter who, in another age could well have hit it big in hair metal. Once having the won over the emo kids with “Mad World,” the songs he chose in the lead up to the American Idol finale — Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, Queen, and Kiss — were all rockers that filled stadiums in decades past with ecstatic dudes waving lighters.

What is more, reports that Lambert is holding out for the cover of Rolling Stone (compare his predecessor in American Idol outings, Clay Aiken, who gave the big “reveal” to People), if true, would confirm a canny attempt to see if a rock audience is ready for him, not just a readership eager for celebrity news. Its an uphill climb of course, but so is anything in the music business these days.

I have no idea if this play for straight male attention is actually intended, or whether it will succeed if it is. But it does seem that, in an age when the rapper Eminem — often pilloried in the past for his homophobia — launches a comeback by arranging to have a gay Austrian fashion journalist descend from the ceiling at the MTV Movie Awards wearing Icarus wings and land his naked ass on Eminem’s face — straight masculinity just isn’t what it used to be. The sweet, married Christian winner of Idol, Kris Allen, has also apparently decided if you can’t beat them join as well, going out of his way to publicly express his bromance with Lambert through hugs and a dip in the shared nail polish bottle.

Gay masculinity, the swishier the better, is apparently the latest form of supplementarity propping up whatever is left of straight macho. If Lambert succeeds in winning over a segment of this audience — by touring with Queen, recording with Slash, or any of the other rock projects he’s dangled in front of the media — the question may turn into whether he’ll become just another prop — like Howard Stern’s gay intern or the awful Queer Eye guys — or whether his shriek will shatter the vestiges of straight male privilege in popular music today.

Guyliner and Glass Closets

4 Jun

adam-lambert-gettin-busy--large-msg-123567095819Do you care whether American Idol runner-up Adam Lambert (seen here in “Clockwork Orange” drag) officially comes out of the closet? Is he even in it, in your opinion? And regardless of when or whether he ever sings to the tune of our confessional culture, will he make an impact on queer representation in pop music and culture, do you think?

Send us your commentaries, up to 500 words, to bullybloggers@gmail.com, and we’ll review them for posting here.